Talking Points: St. Francis

A few key notes to track tonight as Illinois takes on St. Francis.

CHAMPAIGN - The John Groce era got off to a good start Friday with a win over Colgate in the season-opener.

Groce liked his team's effort and offensive play, but indicated there was plenty of room for improvement.

Tonight's contest against St. Francis-Brooklyn (1-0) provides an opportunity to get better. Here are a few things to track…

1. Brandon Paul. The senior guard played at a high level Friday, posting 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists.

The well-rounded effort was noted, but Paul has played brilliantly for spurts in the past, only to be followed up by average performances. He's been inconsistent and streaky.

Has his game taken the next step, to a level where night in and night out he's giving 100 percent effort, playing within the context of the offense and providing help in the less glamorous parts of the game?

2. The rotation. Groce says he's comfortable with his top eight -- Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Tyler Griffey, Joe Bertrand, Sam McLaurin and Myke Henry. Those guys will continue to get plenty of time on the court.

But Groce has stated he ideally wants a nine or 10-man rotation.

"That's not up to me," he said. "That's up to the players, you know their ability to execute our system, their ability to learn what we want them to do. Obviously it's year one and I get that, but it's the old Stan Van Gundy, if you're a mistake player, it's a mistake to play you. We've got to make sure that we help these guys and get to where they learn our system and obviously we're hoping a ninth and potential 10th man develops."

The athletic Devin Langford saw time Friday and met expectations. Groce mentioned Langford's enjoyed a good run of practices of late, which has given him the inside track to be the ninth player in the rotation. Is he ready to contribute on a nightly basis?

"The biggest thing with Devin is he needs to run our system better and be disciplined enough to execute it, whether that's positioning or taking care of the basketball," Groce said. "He needs to develop that trust level. A lot of it boils down to trust."

3. Improving defensive deficiencies. Groce singled out transition defense following both the West Chester exhibition and Colgate opener. While it doesn't appear to be an issue of effort, the team isn't getting back and setting up properly in certain instances.

"I was disappointed on the execution of our transition defense," Groce said. "We've got to get better there. That will be tested… We'll play a team (St. Francis) that's the fastest of the four times we will have played."

Groce would also like to see the dribble drive handled more effectively. Too many times against Colgate the ball made it's way into the interior, breaking down the defense and providing multiple outlets for potential scores.

"I thought we got beat off the dribble, put us in a rotation a little bit too much on Friday night, put us in situations where we had to help too much," Groce said. "When you do that, that's how you give up 3s.

"We're playing a team that was 35th in the country last year in 3-point production, so that's a big part of what they do, so we're hoping to be better in that area so we're guarding the basketball better and not having to help and running at the ball as much."

4. Getting Egwu and McLaurin going. McLaurin and Egwu controlled the boards against Colgate, but weren't much of a scoring presence. The 3-pointers from the guards and versatile forwards Griffey and Henry were plentiful, but that won't always be the case.

Egwu didn't have his best night shooting, finishing 3-of-10 and McLaurin offered only four points. Both missed a few point blank putbacks, too.

Groce is fine with 3-point shots in the context of the offense, but he'd also like to see a more balanced scoring output.

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